Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Look At God’s Mercy

September 24, 2017 –– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6–9 / Psalm 145 / Philippians 1:20c–24,27a / Matthew20:1–16a
A Look At God’s Mercy

Each week we hear three Scripture readings, usually from the Old Testament, an Epistle, and always a Gospel. This is a primary way that God speaks to us. The lector says “the Word of the Lord” and we reply “Amen.” The  opening of the letter to the Hebrews affirms this: In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son….

Why has God spoken as he has? Why did God speak through other people (the prophets) instead of directly to all of us? (Haven’t you ever wanted a clear,  unmistakable “direct word” from the Lord?). Why the progressive revelation? Maybe the most succinct answer comes through Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts…. (55:8,9).

God doesn’t tell some things because we couldn’t understand even if he told us. We are too small and limited. He doesn’t tell us other things because, even understanding, we couldn’t handle it (we have a hard time handling much of what he has told us––just think of the incredible implications of the last sentence in the second reading: Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ). We have to work at that every day: living in a way worthy of the Gospel.

The more we understand what God has revealed in the Scriptures, the more complete our understanding and the more our lives will be be aligned to the what God desires (and what is truly good). In today’s Gospel we have the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Some get confused and think this is about justice or “fairness”, when it’s really about God’s mercy and his purposes. There are at least two “levels” of meaning in this parable. Most readers do not recognize the first, but it’s actually basic to the second meaning we instinctively want.

Scott Hahn gave this summary: The landowner is God. The vineyard is the kingdom. The workers hired at dawn are the Israelites, to whom he first offered his covenant. Those hired later in the day are the Gentiles, the non-Israelites, who, until the coming of Christ, were strangers to the covenants of promise (see Ephesians 2:11-13). In the Lord’s great generosity, the same wages, the same blessings promised to the first-called, the Israelites, will be paid to those called last, the rest of the nations. This provokes grumbling. The complaint of the first laborers sounds like that of the older brother in Jesus’ prodigal son parable (see Luke 15:29-30). God’s ways, however, are far from our ways, as we hear in today’s First Reading.

Alongside the the huge truth of God’s extravagant mercy that we find here  is a caution against a temptation to resent God’s lavish mercy. Why? We so quickly and easily want to be forgiven (or even excused), but there is a desire for the other guy to “get what he deserves.”

The Gospel is the wonderful realization that God is not like that. Isaiah says that God is generous in forgiving. Then he gives the great contrast: my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts….

It is very human to keep score. It is godly to want love and mercy to win over pay-back and vengeance. It is human to want others to get what they deserve. It is godly to want the best for others.

God is always ready to extend mercy. Yet many will not receive God’s mercy because they will not open themselves to it. How do we open ourselves to mercy? Isaiah tells us:
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
   call upon him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
   and the wicked his thoughts;
Let him turn to the Lord for mercy….

Think of that in the context of the parable. Those who started to work early and worked all day were paid the promised day’s wage. Those who worked half a day were paid a day’s wage. Those who worked the last hour of the day were paid a day’s wage. That is the mercy of God. No matter when we turn to him––as a child or as an older adult––there is full forgiveness and the gift of eternal life.

There is another class of people, though, who are not explicitly mentioned in the parable, but we can assume they were there: it’s the people who decided not to work at all. Maybe it was “too hot” (the all-day workers complained about the day’s burden and heat), and they wanted to be comfortable. Maybe they didn’t like the landowner and decided they would make no contribution to his harvest. Maybe they just had something else to do and assumed there would always be another day. Whatever their reasons, the ones who didn’t work did not get paid.

God is inviting every one of us today: Come to me…. come into my vineyard––my Kingdom––and work for me…. lay aside your own desires and conditions. Isaiah’s words give another expression of how to do that very thing: We’re to forsake––turn away from––the things that not like God. We turn to Jesus by turning away from the things that keep him away. Actually, God is always coming to us––we just need to be open to him.

When we are open to God, he is rich in mercy and wants to give each of us far beyond what we would have thought possible. All we have to is lay aside our own ways and thoughts and let God do whatever he wants to do. What he wants to do is lavish us with his generous mercy.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

People of the Cross

September 3, 2017 –– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7–9 / Psalm 63 / Romans 12:1–2 / Matthew 16:21–27
People of the Cross

It’s as American as the Declaration of Independence. It’s also innate to human nature. It’s “the pursuit of happiness.” Who doesn’t want to be happy? Yet how do we know what real happiness is? Many things which give immediate pleasure result in awful repercussions. True happiness is not mere emotional or physical euphoria. Our desire for happiness is ultimately an intense longing for God.

We live in a time and culture that has a hard time realizing this. Like millions of others, I am on Facebook. I try to use it judiciously, especially for posting articles I find significant for Christian reflection. I also see how easily emotions are manipulated and too quickly expressed, but sometimes Facebook gives a genuine funny. I saw this cartoon a couple of weeks ago….

Two people are in conversation. The first one says, “I feel like Jesus’ teachings can be summed up like this: DON’T HURT ANYBODY’S FEELINGS. ‘Cuz if something hurts someone’s feelings, it can’t be Christlike.”

The other person responds, “I see that sentiment everywhere. How on earth do you reconcile that with the Bible as the source of Truth? I mean, the truth hurts…. It’s objective and exclusive and the truth is true no matter how we feel about it.”

So the first person responds, “Wanna know how I know you’re wrong? ‘Cuz that hurts my feelings!” 

This sentiment is all around us.

Today’s readings take us into the heart of our struggle when we don’t like what God says. Jeremiah cried out to God because of the derision and reproach that he received simply because he proclaimed God’s truth. The rejection was so bad that he tried to promise himself: I will not mention him; I will speak in his name no more. And yet his commitment to God and truth was so intense that he said: it becomes like fire burning in my heart. This is how the Holy Spirit works in our lives when we are committed to be faithful.

But what are we to do with that yearning we all have to be happy? Every day we have a choice to make; it’s the nitty-gritty process of Christian conversion: Do we trust our feelings or do we put our faith in the claim of what God has said? A moment’s thought should show the conflict and bedlam that happens when each person tries to follow his own feelings. On the other hand, if we follow St Augustine in his classic observation, we will find a unifying center that indeed leads to true happiness: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. This is what the Psalmist says in the responsorial: O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts… 

What are we to expect when we seek God? Too often we make the mistake of the first person in the cartoon. We’d like to believe God will never ask of us anything that is unpleasant. The witness of the Scriptures and the Faith proclaimed by the Church tell us that is not true. Paul gives the contrast in his letter to the Romans: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…. Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed…. Jesus tells us that true life comes through dying to the old life. It’s the message of the cross.

This choice is as old as humanity. It was Jeremiah’s choice when he couldn’t hold back what he knew to be God’s truth. Last week was the Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist; he chose to speak truth to Herod and paid for it with his life. This is what Jesus was saying to the Twelve, and it is what the human-weakness part of Peter did not want to hear.

It takes faith to see this––and Christian Faith is God’s invitation to dare to believe. Pope Benedict XVI said, “When Peter recoiled from the cross he was denying the very possibility of happiness…..” When Jesus calls us to the cross, he is calling us to ultimate happiness because he is calling us to himself. We may not be able to sense it right away, and there will be painful obstacles, but as Christians we are people of the cross. It is more than a gesture we make.

The cross comes to each of us according to our time and place and measure of faith. It could be sacrificing screen time each day or a bit of sleep in order to spend dedicated time with the Lord. It can be the simple embarrassment of being different for Jesus’ sake when others around us are doing whatever is popular. It can be a willingness to sacrifice financially when we’d rather spend “our” money for our own enjoyment. It can be the pain of rejection in a relationship when we have to choose between obedience and convenience. It can be the ultimate price of physical life.

Our Lord speaks to us in the Gospel. Do we believe him? Bishop Robert Barron, introducing today’s reading, made this observation: “Disciples listen to Jesus; sinners tell him what to do. Disciples obey the Master; sinners correct him….”

What are we trusting to make us happy? Jesus tells us to embrace the cross. As we live in a world that hungers for happiness, let’s be people of the cross. It’s the way we are connected to Jesus. Offer [yourselves] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Let’s pray:

Father, we are surrounded with voices that tell us we can choose our own truth. We feel the pull to do whatever is convenient and comfortable. We also know that embracing the cross hurts.
Help us to love you so much that we can be faithful even when it’s hard…. even when it hurts. Hear the cry of our hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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